Saturday, September 11, 2021

Quote of the Day (The ‘9/11 Commission Report,’ on America’s ‘Unity of Purpose’ After the Attacks)

“We call on the American people to remember how we all felt on 9/11, to remember not only the unspeakable horror but how we came together as a nation—one nation. Unity of purpose and unity of effort are the way we will defeat this enemy and make America safer for our children and grandchildren.”—“Executive Summary of the 9/11 Commission Report,” released Aug. 21, 2004

I have written, glancingly, on 9/11 before, but not really about my own experiences that day, till now. I watched with my work colleagues from our midtown Manhattan office, initially with bafflement, then with distress and grief, as first one, then a second plane hit the World Trade Center.

Hours later, safe on a long bus ride on the other side of the Hudson River in New Jersey, I watched a skyline whose beauty I had never properly appreciated before, marred now with coils of dense, deadly smoke spiraling upward from what had been the mighty Twin Towers.

When I returned to the city a couple of days later, mournful bagpipes playing in the Port Authority Building on 42nd Street lamented the dead. Leaflets were plastered on the streets, in an often futile search for the missing.

At the firehouse on Eighth Avenue at 48th Street, photos were posted outside of fallen comrades. For years afterward, whenever I heard the clang of fire bells while working in my building, I offered up fast prayers that those going out on trucks would, unlike many of those earlier heroes, survive and return home safely to the families who loved them.

There are many reasons to feel dismay on this 20th anniversary of 9/11: the chaos that many of us in Manhattan experienced that day; the nearly 3,000 lives lost immediately, there, at the Pentagon, and on United Flight 93 in rural Shanksville, PA; the roughly 4,600 first responders and survivors enrolled in the WTC Health Program who have since died; and, of course, the dispiriting return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But it is that loss of “unity of purpose and unity of effort”—the nonpartisan spirit of instinctive self-sacrifice and looking out for each other—that maybe pains me the most. It will take historians years to figure out how we lost our way in the generation since then.

But clearly, toxins were released not just into Lower Manhattan that day, but into the American body politic. We have gone from praying for each other to shouting at each other.

For good or ill, the question of how America would respond to the horror of 9/11 has been settled. The question of how to remove the foul dust of skepticism and suspicion permeating so much of the national political spectrum has not. That is the nightmare we face all this time after our generation’s Pearl Harbor, except without the sense of closure eventually achieved after that earlier attack on America.

Yet I’m reluctant to end on this dispiriting note. I prefer to remember what a priest noted in a sermon I heard not long afterward, as he recalled the service of firefighters on 9/11: “Hate started the fires that day, but love put them out.”

(I took the image accompanying this post: the Reflecting Pool at the 9/11 Memorial.)

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